19th-Century Jewish Humor

More than just laughing through the tears.


Reprinted with permission from The Big Book of Jewish Humor (HarperCollins Publishers).

The justly celebrated humor of the European shtetl [village] is typically referred to as “traditional” Jewish humor. Except for Sholem Aleichem and occasional pieces by other Yiddish writers, most of this material belongs to the realm of folk humor–jokes and anonymous funny stories, together with an assortment of proverbs and curses–all of which was passed along and developed over several generations.¬†

Some of its roots can be traced as far back as the medieval Purim shpiels–comicplays based on the story of Esther and other Biblical tales. Indeed, it is even argued that the Bible and the Talmud, as the original repositories of Jewish humor, are replete with humorous tales and witty exchanges. This claim may hold true for a few of the commentaries that the Biblical text continues to generate, but the Bible ¬†itself is fundamentally a sober work, while the Talmud contains all too few truly funny passages.

19th c. humorComic Relief

A predominant misconception about traditional Jewish humor is that it is essentially composed of “laughter through tears.” Along with its heartwarming appeal, the phrase enjoys a ring of cogency; after all, the humor of the Russian and Polish Jews arose out of one of the grimmest stretches in all of Jewish history. Persecution, poverty, and uprootedness, three of the major conditions of that era, gave rise to much of the humor that is associated with Eastern Europe and that came to America in successive waves of immigration.

But despite the enduring popularity of the idea, “laughter through tears” is an incomplete description of traditional Jewish humor. It is true that these jokes deal with actual events, and it is also true that these events are frequently unpleasant–or worse. But the phrase wrongly emphasizes the humor that developed through suffering and implies that the Jew’s endless struggle with adversity provides its dominant theme.

Comedy in Everyday Life

The evidence suggests otherwise. For every joke about anti-Semitism, poverty, or dislocation, there are several others dealing with less melancholy topics: the intricacies of the Jewish mind, its scholars, students, and schlemiels [luckless fools]; the eternal comedy of food, health, and manners; the world of businessmen, rabbis, and schnorrers (beggars); the concerns of matchmaking, marriage, and family. What all these jokes have in common, aside from a remarkable combination of earthiness and subtlety that appeals to common folk and intellectuals alike, is not that they are primarily sad or wistful, but that they are wise and–no small matter for 19th-century humor–genuinely funny even today.

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William Novak is a writer, editor, and comedy scholar.

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